Who helps the helpers? 8 tips for voluntary groups

Three volunteers at a food bank

Local voluntary mutual aid groups have been critically important for many people during Covid. But keeping the momentum going is difficult even when the need for the kind of help these groups provide is still high.

Groups & COVID: Community, Support and Mutual Aid, a project led by Prof John Drury, aims to understand how psychological group processes can be used to develop and sustain shared identity and social solidarity during pandemics

Dr Maria Fernandes-Jesus interviewed 32 organisers of COVID-19 mutual aid and community support groups from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. She also reviewed previous studies on community solidarity after disasters, collective action and social movements.

As a result of her study, Dr Fernandes-Jesus has compiled a list of 8 tips to help organisers of volunteering groups sustain participation over time:

1. Clarify group’s goals

People may arrive to the group with different expectations of the group’s goals, approach and purpose. It is important that the goals and actions of the group are understood as consistent, achievable, successful and relevant.

2. Enhance sense of belonging

Groups should promote practices that facilitate feeling part of the group, such as regular meetings. This should however be promoted in a way that is non-exclusionary to other people and communities.

3. Promote socialising and celebrating moments

Some groups have been able to create social and/or celebratory events during the pandemic. This has been considered important for facilitating community engagement and simultaneously to keep the morale of the group high.

4. Engage with the community

Informing the community about the group’s activities is crucial for facilitating community engagement. Make sure that the local community knows how to join the group, participate in its activities and where to ask for help.

5. Encourage care and support

Care strategies are important to avoid burnout in activist and group settings, and they should be considered at an organisational level.

6. Ask people to contribute

It can be tough to ask for help. People may feel anxious, ashamed and uncomfortable. It is easier to accept help when people feel that they are also contributing something. This will also increase the spirit of solidarity and mutual support.

7. Promote collaborative relationships

Building alliances and collaborative relationships with others is key for ensuring an effective community response in which everyone receives the help they need. This facilitates access to resources and an effective provision of help.

8. Be flexible in terms of roles and procedures

While coordination and leadership roles are important, informal and flexible leadership roles are particularly valued. Groups should facilitate structures that are not too hierarchical and rigid in their roles and procedures.

Are you part of a support group and/or want to know more about this research? Consult their Mutual Aid Groups & COVID-19 May 2021 Newsletter.

Group and COVID is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and UK Research and Innovation. Dr Maria Fernandes-Jesus is a social and community psychologist, specialising in the study of participation and collective action. John Drury is Professor of Social Psychology and part of the Social and Applied Psychology Group in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex.

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